Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The Difference Between a Synopsis and a Novel

OK … so I had a synopsis. But I wasn’t just religiously following that. No plan survives initial contact with the enemy.

The synopsis I’d written, the one Justin and I had worked through, the one that Russell Davies Himself had read and approved, was two pages long. It wasn’t meant to contain every single thing the book would. Editors know that. The idea is that when you hand the book in, the editor can look at the synopsis and go ‘yeah, that’s what we commissioned’. Basically it's so, down the line, the marketing people, the cover designer, the sales reps, the press and publicity people … they all know, months before the book actually exists, what they’ll be getting.

Tales grow in the telling.

The thing a lot of non-writers ask is ‘where do you get your ideas?’. It’s the wrong question to ask. Ideas are easy, it’s stringing them together in a coherent way that’s the challenge. What I’ve found is that to string ideas together, the process of writing is more like a set of heuristics … ‘solutions to problems’.

There are a variety of strategies a writer adopts. Now … again, as I’ve said before, very little of this is conscious, particularly when everything’s working. It’s not a matter of sitting and calculating – you don’t catch a ball by calculating a parabola, you do it on instinct. Or, in my case, you fumble and drop the ball because you lack even basic hand-eye co-ordination.

The basic problem to solve is that there’s a set of specific story points you want to make – people who study drama tend to call these ‘beats’. If you want to make the point that a character is cool in a crisis … well, the golden rule is that you don’t just write ‘Steve was great in a crisis’, you have a scene where we all see Steve coping well in a crisis (and, conversely, other people coping badly, by way of contrast). ‘Show not tell’. And the difference between fiction and real life is that everything in fiction is there for a reason, and is making a specific point – the art of it is to make it feel like real life, and the irony is that necessitates hundreds of different contrivances and conventions. So, for example, people in real life don’t speak in any way at all like people speak in the movies – unless the real life people are quoting from movies. The biggest con job of all, the most artificial and convention-bound, is the story that's 'realistic'.

Things change as the writer turns his ideas into an actual book, and that was certainly true of The Eyeless.

One character, Dela, isn’t even mentioned in the proposal and just ended up becoming a major character. This often happens – stories work much better if there are two people in a room, arguing and explaining things. As I said last time, I was splicing scenes together, keeping things pacey and efficient. I needed characters to hit three ‘beats’ – to do three things – and it turned out that Dela could do all three, and suddenly was there in my book, a rounded character.

Another character, Alsa, started out as one thing and ended up as exactly the same character but playing a completely different, much more interesting and involved role in the story. Again, I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but the book altered quite substantially once I understood the active role she’d take in the story. Gar, on the other hand, a character we first meet with Alsa, ended up with far less than I was expecting. I thought the two of them would be a double act, and get pretty much equal time.

The thing is … synopses are always a bit of a fudge. Legend has it that the outline for the Paul McGann movie ends with something like ‘and then the Doctor gets back to the TARDIS and stops the Master in his own inimitable style’. That’s the whole last act basically down as ‘TBC’. And the last act is a bit of a mess, probably not coincidentally. If nothing else, if you’ve not pinned it down, every random passing executive can pitch in and add a suggestion like ‘wouldn’t it be great if they went into, like, a time orbit?’ and he’ll be too senior for anyone to express their natural, healthy reaction to the idea, which is basically to re-enact that bit with Heath Ledger and the pencil.

There will always be things you’ve not fully worked out in your synopsis. You’ll have things like ‘and then the Doctor gets through the impenetrable forcefield and meets the Guardian who tells him the way to the Old City’ or something, without knowing how he does that literally, by definition, impossible thing or what the hell a Guardian is or looks like. In that case, it’s basically deferring your imagination. You’ll explain later.

There are two simple problems there … coming up with a trick for the Doctor to perform to get past the forcefield while trying to maintain suspense, and playing fair with your readers – ‘oh look, a button that deactivates the forcefield’ is a bit rubbish, but so’s ‘I’ll plug my sonic screwdriver into the tachyon emitters and send a plasmotic pulse’. Ideally, you want some way that the reader could guess – ‘oh, he uses the crystal he picked up in the forest in the first chapter’ or just make a fight of it. The Doctor gets past five traps a story, there are over a thousand Doctor Who stories, so it’s tricky coming up with a novel way of getting past a trap. As I said a while back, stories are about choices. If your protagonist gets past the trap by making a clever, characteristic, choice, it’s always going to be more satisfying than if he does it by luck or coincidence.

Likewise, the Doctor’s met lots of monsters – a number of them called ‘Guardian’, for that matter, like Mavic Chen, Guardian of the Solar System (except on Sunday, when he’s merely an Observer, joke © Jim Smith), the Guardian of the Doomsday Weapon, not forgetting the Black, White, er … hang on, I think I can do this from memory, Gold, Azure, Red, Crystal and Beige Guardians. Was there a Pink Guardian? Somehow, you feel there ought to be in the Doctor Who universe. Pink could play him or her.

These are basically just three pipe problems. You spend a day going ‘the Guardian’s a big lizard … nah … she’s a little girl … nah … he’s Stephen Fry in a UFO style purple tinfoil wig … yeah … er … nah’ until you hit on an idea that just works. It is, in all honesty, a ridiculous way to make a living, and to justify it, authors work themselves up until things like this seem like the Schleswig-Holstein Question or trying to prove that N=NP.

These aren’t structural problems. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what the Guardian looks like from a story point of view. The story beat is only that the Doctor needs to meet someone who can tell him about the Old City. If the book was running over the word count, or was dragging a bit, you could ditch the whole forcefield/Guardian bit and have the Doctor find a signpost marked ‘to the Old City’.

If you’re writing a book and you change your mind, you only have to edit a few sentences. Or, and this is the great thing with novels, you can defer everything to your readers: ‘she was the most beautiful woman imaginable’. OK readers … get imagining. On TV, you have to be more concrete – you have to cast that woman, so it becomes a question of the most beautiful woman by the standards of the casting director who’s available and agrees the fee. Not really the same. But even on TV, the writer can palm a load of the heavy lifting off onto the director or designers. You type ‘it’s a futuristic control room’ and get on with things, leaving some other guy to design and build the damn thing.

Ten days or so into the writing of The Eyeless, I hit a structural problem …

Thursday, 23 October 2008

I (heart), (heart) Doctor Who

A brief digression.

Doctor Who is great, Doctor Who under Russell T Davies is the best thing on television. I love it, I love the fact that millions of people also love it, I love the fact that a television is now basically a device that lets people watch Doctor Who and its spinoffs and also has some rarely-used additional functions. This is, essentially, how I've wanted the world to be since I was about six.

With The Eyeless, I wanted to write a book that helps celebrate the strengths of the new series. Part of that, of course, is accentuating the stuff that I like and downplaying stuff I like less. Although, be warned that my favourite episode is probably The Last of the Time Lords - but there's so much competition I feel so guilty saying that - and my favourite scene is definitely the Scissor Sisters bit.

A video did the rounds last year. I've no idea who put it together, but I love it and it was a major source of inspiration for the tone of my book. It's got a lovely, bleak New Adventuresy feel to it, gives me real 'want to see' pangs. While I understand the reasons why, it's a little sad to know we'd never, ever be allowed to get away with a scene where the Doctor's down a dirty alleyway in a fistfight with a bunch of kids. Thank you, whoever did this.

Charlie Brooker also said some trenchant things about the second series, then got paid again for saying them again.

I agree with a lot of that - most of all, the stuff about loving the show and the need to hunt down and punish those who don't.

The Eyeless had drills in an early draft of the book. They didn't actually need them for anything, or use them, but they did have them.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Quotients, Balances

This is going to sound arrogant and horrible, so imagine me saying it in gently ironic tones: I don’t find writing a Doctor Who book all that difficult. Douglas Adams had that quote about how writing was about sitting there until your forehead bleeds … I prefer former BBC political correspondent John Cole’s line that the hardest part isn’t getting words on a page, it’s keeping your bottom on the seat. It’s very easy to get distracted, particularly when it’s oh so easy to justify watching a DVD, popping out to Borders or just staring out the window as ‘research’.

John Cole made his remark in the pre-internet age, if anyone now can imagine such an epoch. Now you can be quite happily sat at your computer with the document open and still be involved in displacement activities.

As a productivity boost, can I recommend the Morning Coffee Firefox extension? It automatically loads a bunch of websites in the morning. So you get to check Outpost Gallifrey, Lifehacker, Penny Arcade, Unreality, your friends’ sites and so on all in one concentrated burst, then you get on with your day.

I am, apparently, a fast writer. A fair few professional writers say they manage about a thousand words a day. Now … this isn’t anything to get hung up about. If you write five hundred words a day and they’re good, that’s pretty handy. Most people have actual jobs and friends and family, that sort of thing, so it’s hard to make time to write at all. If you want to be a writer, you have to work out a way to find that time, of course. The Eyeless is 55,000 words long, and that’s at the lower end of novel-length. A thousand words a day is two months with a few days off for good behaviour, assuming you're doing nothing else.

My record is about 15,000 words in a day – the first great surge of activity on The Dying Days, where I had a really, really clear idea of what I had to do (and, more to the point, a deadline of five weeks to do it). All cylinders blazing, the first burst, or with a real mastery of the material, I can do something like 6000 words in a day. My record the other way … well, I’ve thrown away a chapter, so probably something like -5000 words. With books that completely fail to take root – my Prisoner novella, my Great American Novel that I’ve been writing for three years now and refer to, dreadingly, as The Whale Oil Book - I must be averaging less than ten words a day. On the whole, I reckon I write about 2500 words a day on average. The best trick I’ve found is to try to do a novel at the same time as a non-fiction book – they don’t really feel like the same kind of thing when you’re writing so you can displace from writing to … writing something else.

This time I had a couple of extra challenges.

The first was the length. As Pascal said … no, hang on, I quoted him last time. You know what he said.

It became very clear to me that The Eyeless couldn’t be paced at quite the way my other books had been. The Gallifrey Chronicles, to be honest, is probably more frenetic, but it had a lot to do. The pace of Doctor Who TV stories just kept speeding up. Watch The Web Planet and it’s hard to shake the idea that Tennant and Donna would get to halfway through episode three by the opening credits (virtually every ‘sting’ that comes just before the opening credits now would have been the episode one cliffhanger even in the eighties). It’s no coincidence that the ‘typical’ story started at six or seven episodes long, dropped to four, was dropping to three in the late eighties and is now fifty minutes. There’s just as much ‘story’ in, say, Planet of the Ood as a Troughton six parter, probably more.

As a digression … it’s interesting that while TV is getting shorter and punchier, novels are getting longer and longer. Technology allows this – word processors let authors store more (the completed Eyeless book would fit on half an old floppy disc, it barely registers on a flashdrive), it allows editors to edit faster. Books get emailed, not posted. An author doesn’t cross out mistakes or have to retype pages, or have one manuscript that they can’t, at any cost, leave on the bus. It’s pretty amazing to think that in the Target book days, someone at a printers was fitting together little metal letters to make up each page in turn, then running the press, then rearranging the letters on the frame to make the next set of pages. All of this means that these days a long book costs about the same for everyone as a short one.

Long story short (see what I did there?), if I’d paced The Eyeless like an old Past Doctor book, it would have felt like a short, light, slow Past Doctor book. The book starts out with quite a slow build, establishing the setting. I very quickly found myself splicing scenes together – instead of two scenes where the Doctor walks down a corridor, then into a room and starts talking to someone, we have what The West Wing production team took to calling ‘pedalogues’: the Doctor and someone walking down a corridor, talking as they go. The advice scriptwriters get is to start the scene as late as possible and finish it as soon as possible. I found myself doing that a lot.

This is all great for the book. It’s very focused, there’s not much you could mistake for padding. It was quite tricky, though – not least because if you’re writing with everything tightly packed like that, it becomes very difficult to change things around when you need to.

The other issue was that this was a book marketed as YA. I’ve discussed that already in my September posts. In practical terms, although I was very determined just to write a Doctor Who book, not paralyse myself by endlessly second-guessing what ‘Cardiff’ wanted or whether kids would like it, I did have ‘older children will be reading this’ in the back of my mind. I knew my Philip Pullman, and figured that if Young Adult books allow kids to not just go around with knives, but to stab God with them, that the ‘ratings’ issue wouldn’t be too much of a problem. But I did want to read up on what was popular, mainly – I have to admit – so I could use it as precedent (‘Justin, in Silverfin, a girl pins Bond down with her thighs and a eel squirts out of a dead man’s mouth *, so it’s clearly acceptable for the younger readers … ’).

I had a clear idea of how my book started, I’d already started assembling phrases and images and jokes and so on.

It’s always good to read. If you want to be a writer, read more, and read more widely. As I wrote The Eyeless, I relaxed by reading. And what happened is what always happens when something’s working: I’d be reading something completely unrelated to my book, and a factoid or quotation or bit of history would suddenly leap out as something to look at. This happens a lot with me. Either it’s some amazingly powerful unconscious, holistic thing, or I just become completely blinkered and uncritical. I was reading Life, the Universe and Everything when the exact quote I needed appeared, a lovely turn of phrase from Douglas Adams I’d never noticed in the dozen or so times I’d read the book before. It’s in The Eyeless, with all due credit.

I try to give every book its own ‘voice’. It’s hard to describe – it’s to do with pace and the length of sentences. The Infinity Doctors, say, has loads of descriptive passages and dwells on little details. Trading Futures skates over things really fast (there were quite a lot of long, dense books in the previous batch of EDAs, and I just thought people would appreciate one they could gulp down in two sittings). This ‘voice’ is all about the internal logic of the story. In One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night, Christopher Brookmyre talks about the bullet-deadliness quotient, he’s right and I think there are lots of equivalents in fiction. Kissing someone is far more significant in Doctor Who than having sex with them and their sister would be in Skins. Each story has its own level of meting out justice, the relationship between what they do and the punishment they get. There are Child Spunkiness Quotients, Adultery Forgiveness Quotients, Swearing Quotients, Quip and Eloquence Quotients, Character Disposable Income And Free Time Quotients, Recovery Time From Injury Quotients. You create a world, with rules. The trick is, as Brookmyre says, to stay consistent within those rules.

Some books, I really struggle with finding those balances. If I had to describe the writing process, that’s the word I would use: ‘balancing’. Writing is about making lots of choices – choosing a path, which means not choosing other paths. You have to work out if you’re telling your audience too much or not enough. A lot of this is instinctive, but writing itself is a sort of ‘guided instinctive’ process. You go on your instincts … then go back and make sure.

Finding the ‘voice’ for The Eyeless was fairly smooth. While I would eventually edit a few things down, I pretty much had the first sixty five pages or so done and dusted inside a week. Gosh, everything was going so smoothly. I’d have it done by Christmas at this rate.

By moving so quickly, I had got a little ahead of myself …

Tuesday, 14 October 2008


The setting and the shape of the monsters are basically dressing. The structure of a novel is its plot – what happens and when. The trick of a novel, really, is working out when the audience finds out information. Writers keep information back. They either gradually introduce it, or keep some vital point either obscure or out of the equation so they can come back and surprise you later with it.

The typical Doctor Who story has the Doctor arriving to find some monsters menacing a group of nice people. The Doctor discovers that the monsters have a bigger plan than just menacing those people – the running joke on some Doctor Who discussion boards is that every blurb for a Doctor Who book seems to include the phrase ‘but not everything is as it seems’.

For The Eyeless, I was keen to tell a story where everything was exactly as it seems. The problem is set out right at the beginning, there are no real twists and turns. The issue is solving the problem, not simple redefining it away.

I was keen to do a type of story that Doctor Who does surprisingly rarely – what I call the ‘Guns of Navarone’ type story. Basically, it’s a mission, with the characters having to get past all obstacles to reach their objective.

I also really wanted to tell a psychological story, one that explored the Doctor’s character a bit, tested him. Now, there are limits to what you can do. Not because Cardiff are mean and don’t let you, but simply because Doctor Who is a running serial. You can’t change him all that much. What would you want to change him for, anyway, when he’s the Doctor? He’s great. What you can do, though, is reveal stuff about him, challenge him, see him how others see him.

I wanted to play with the themes of the new series, wanted to make it distinctly a tenth Doctor story, not just a generic one. A lot of the new series is set on modern day Earth, with pop culture references and a soap opera thing going on with the companions and their families. The brief was to stay away from all that – so, bye bye any story featuring a pregnant Lucy Saxon and the Space Pig and a visit from Torchwood: 2020 where Maria Jackson’s on the team and K9’s the boss. Instead of those trappings, I had to think about what the new series was about. I’ve tried to pick up on the themes of the new show and, if you’re looking, you’ll spot a few things like lines of dialogue that quote the television series.

I was writing a book in which the Doctor travels on his own. And what we’ve discovered time and time again (actually starting in the New Adventures, and first articulated in Paul Cornell’s Love and War) is that the Doctor needs a companion. When we see him in Rose, say, or The Runaway Bride, without a companion, he doesn’t have the checks and balances he usually has. He’s not a human being, he’s acutely aware of the bigger picture, and that can make him act a little … inhumanely. Think of him surrounded by fire, wiping out the Racnoss at the end of The Runaway Bride. That’s the Doctor on his own, if he’s not careful.

The goal at this stage, as people who’ve read the early posts of this blog know, was to come up with a two-page synopsis.

Here, it’s taken me the equivalent of two and a bit sides of A4 just to set all that out. You can imagine that explaining all that, while structuring it in the form of a Doctor Who story, explaining who all the characters are and what happens was something of a challenge. It’s very easy to waffle on. As Pascal said – I’m pretty sure I’ve already quoted this in this blog, but it is one of my favourite quotes – ‘I’m sorry for the long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one’. It must be a good quote, because it’s constantly ascribed to Twain, Churchill and Voltaire.

By the 23rd of November – appropriately enough - the synopsis had been batted back and forth to Justin a couple of times and between us we’d got the two page synopsis for a book I called The Hidden Fortress into a fit state to send to the Doctor Who production office in Cardiff for approval.

Now … I’ll be perfectly honest, I’ve no idea about the process that goes on at Cardiff. None at all. They could have a trained monkey with a rubber stamp, they could have a crack team of fifty Doctor Who book-approving specialists working over every line. They might have fifty trained monkeys - that would be cool, although probably a bit of a waste of licence-payers’ money. I didn’t have any direct contact, I didn’t get to visit the set or anything like that.

What I do know is that at some stage in the process, Russell Davies looks at the synopses – and that’s presumably why they’re two pages long, now, because he’s got plenty of other things to worry about.

I got two notes back, and this was all within a couple of days (around the 26th of November). I was keen to take advantage of the Doctor being on his own, wanted the hook of ‘this is too dangerous a mission to take a companion on’, but the note came back that the Doctor takes his companions to plenty of dangerous places. The story didn’t change one bit, but the marketing hook, if you like, did.

One thing I know that came back from Russell Davies himself was that the title should be The Eyeless, after the monsters in the book. It’s a much better title than The Hidden Fortress, not least because the Fortress in the book isn’t hidden. That led to a slight structural change – originally the Eyeless showed up out of the blue at the halfway point. Now they were in the title, that reminded me a little too much of The Sontaran Experiment, a two-part story which has the cliffhanger at the end of the first episode of ‘it’s … a Sontaran’ (the working title of that story was The Destructors, which would have maintained the surprise). So I added a couple of things that mean the Eyeless show up a lot earlier in my book.

Russell Davies knows what he’s talking about, to the point that it’s mildly insulting for me to point that out. In other news: Lewis Hamilton can drive cars and Pavarotti was an above-average singer. At this stage, I hadn’t signed a contract. If he’d said something I profoundly and utterly disagreed about, I could have walked away. He was right, on both counts.

OK … as soon as that came through, Justin gave the formal go-ahead. This was around the beginning of December. The Eyeless was commissioned, contracts would be drawn up. I could start work actually writing the thing.

My deadline was the end of June.

Friday, 10 October 2008


Over the next few posts, I’m going to run through a quick timeline of the commissioning and writing process for The Eyeless, to give everyone a sense of what happens, when and how long everything takes. It’s something that people often ask me about, and it is normally (and should be) an invisible part of the process.

I got an initial email from Justin Richards, the consulting editor for the Doctor Who range, on the 6th of November last year asking if I was busy. Suspecting that, if not, he would have something that would keep me busy, I eagerly replied.

He wanted me to write a tenth Doctor book.

I had an idea for one all ready and waiting. I proceeded to explain that it was the Doctor and Donna meeting Jane Austen. The Slitheen were active in Bath during the Regency, setting up an auction for an old superweapon from the Time War. Because they were in the past, zips hadn’t been invented, so the Slitheen had button-up foreheads. Donna hasn’t read any Jane Austen – she proceeds to tell Austen the plot of her favourite book, which is Bridget Jones’ Diary.

Justin told me that if I’d just shut up a minute, they were looking for a book where the Doctor was travelling on his own, they wanted it set anywhere but Earth and that, under no circumstances was I to use old monsters.


In circumstances like this, a writer has to adopt, adapt and improve. So, naturally, I looked at my proposal and said ‘OK. About this superweapon … ’

Justin is very good at giving guidance – what the Doctor Who books are after is a story with a strong hook. That ought to be a given, of course, but with something like my earlier book Trading Futures, there’s a more like a ‘high concept’ than a strong story ‘Doctor Who spoofs James Bond’. The Gallifrey Chronicles has quite a simple idea at its heart – ‘the Doctor discovers who destroyed his home planet … turns out it was him’, but it’s not a standalone story. Father Time’s got a strong story hook – the Doctor literally is left holding the baby, Miranda, and has to protect her from enemies from the far future who are hunting her.

A couple of days later, I had a new idea and got in touch with Justin. We exchanged emails, Justin clarified a couple of points, we honed the idea. The basic story hook stayed exactly the same throughout this and it’s right there in the blurb on the back of the finished book – the Doctor lands on a dead planet dominated by an alien fortress, intent on decommissioning the weapon at the heart of the Fortress.

He wouldn’t let me use the Daleks. I suspected this would be the case, but I felt I should ask. I asked if it could show the Fall of Arcadia from the Time War, mentioned by the Doctor, and was quietly told that it was best if I didn’t. The TV people are telling those stories, and want to tell them on TV – they certainly don’t want to end up contradicting anything that’s in a novel. This actually strengthens the books. We have to come up with our own ideas.

Coming up with a story that will sustain a novel is an odd process, and it’s not something that I can break down into formulae. What I’ve found is that once you’ve got a few strong ideas, other things start to snap into place.

With a Doctor Who novel, of course, a lot of things are sketched in for you beforehand. I’ve also got notebooks full of ideas and bits of ideas going back years. There’s an aircar chase scene that I wanted to put into Cold Fusion (which I wrote in 1996), and which has been in contention for most of my Doctor Who books since. It was very nearly in The Eyeless, but I played around with the ending a bit at a very late stage and lost the scene.

I’ve had the idea for the monsters for a long time. I’m not going to reveal who or what The Eyeless are, you’ll have to read the book, but I had a clear picture of them, a little scene plotted out in my head, and that’s made it onto the page pretty well untouched (page 116, to be precise).

The setting is a Jetsons-style futuristic city – you know the sort of thing – but one that’s fallen into ruin. I just like the images that creates, all this amazing utopian promise, now rusting and collapsed.

I read a couple of articles years ago by Stephen Baxter about the human legacy – what we’d leave behind. The answers are a bit sad and strange. As the weather erodes everything away, in a million years or so, the only structures that would be left are the absolute rock solid things like suspension bridge supports. The main evidence for mankind will be the cuttings in rock for railways and roads. Oh, and there would be a thin fossil layer of refined metal, pollution and nuclear waste. Baxter dramatizes this in his book Evolution.

There was clearly something in the air that makes this idea current. As I started writing The Eyeless, I found out about The World Without Us, a book that imagines what would happen if human beings just vanished today. The conclusion of that book is that, even in seven million years, the faces on Mount Rushmore will be recognizable. It starts out, though, just documenting what happens for the first few years as a city falls apart. The movie I Am Legend came out at the end of last year, dealing with the same sort of situation. There’s always apocalyptic fiction, of course, but the current brand – almost certainly an imaginative bashing together of War on Terror anxiety and eco-guilt – is quite distinctive.

These things happen, there’s a zeitgeist and people all end up doing things independently that look like they’ve been comparing notes. Sometimes, the reason’s obvious – there was a lot of stuff set in China this year like Kung Fu Panda because everyone knew about the Beijing Olympics (this raises the prospect of 2012 being the year of movies like Pub Fight Badger, of course). It may be as simple as we’re all watching the same stuff. You can see the NA/EDAs go through phases of Terminator 2/Warhammer 40,000 gung-ho action, X Files style mysteries, Babylon 5 knock-off future wars that are a bit rubbish when you actually get there, before ending up all Joss Whedon.

A lot of my writer pals are watching The Wire and reading Death Note right now. You have been warned.

The superweapon … well, ultimately, these devices are always McGuffins. This one is a pretty ultimate ultimate weapon, though, as these things go. As the Doctor says at one point in the book ‘It’s a weapon that would give your run-of-the-mill ultimate weapon an inferiority complex’. The nature of the weapon changed over and over as I was writing the book, from just a straightforward big radiation-burst thing through to ideas so exotic they looked remarkably like they didn’t make any sense at all. The trick was to find something strange, big and vaguely plausible, but which worked in a way I could easily explain. The final version is kind of hard-sciencey, in a Doctor Who way.

These are all elements that would end up in the story, but they’re not the story …

Monday, 6 October 2008

The Net Effect

I’ve written Doctor Who novels before, but The Eyeless is a little different. My last one, The Gallifrey Chronicles, was the last of the regular novels to feature the eighth Doctor (the ‘EDAs’), and came out about halfway through the run of Christopher Eccleston’s season. I was in an odd situation with that book – trying to write a novel that celebrated and wrapped up an ongoing story that was over two hundred books long, while also being acutely aware that a new show with a fresh approach would be on the scene. It’s my bestselling Doctor Who novel to date – although my Emmerdale books sold more – and while I don’t have the figures, I’ve been told that The Gallifrey Chronicles ended up as the bestselling EDA of the lot.

The books featuring the new Doctors, though, are in a different league. I’m pretty sure that virtually everyone who bought The Gallifrey Chronicles was an old school fanboy. These were people who’d read the books at one point or another tuning in to the series finale, and the audience for the books then was – pretty much by definition – the hardcore fanbase of Doctor Who.

The big difference nowadays is that the Doctor Who books are truly mainstream. In a competitive marketplace the three Doctor Who novels will be among the bestsellers this Christmas. The books are available in supermarkets and three-for-two offers in bookshops. So, a great big chunk of my readership won’t be Doctor Who fanboys, just people who enjoy the TV show and the previous books. For the first time, a chunk of my readership will be children.

Does an author have a picture of their readership in their head when they’re writing and does that affect what the author writes? Well … yes.

It’s easy to imagine that things divide up neatly between ‘art’ and ‘commerce’, but the fact is that every person buying any book has made a commercial decision, and has done so, in part, because a publisher has carefully offered them a product and persuaded them to buy it. Now, some authors may want to distance themselves from that process, to create an uncompromised, unalloyed work of pure art and form … but that just means that someone else has to do the marketing for them. Or, I suspect is more often the case, that the book is so ‘uncompromised’ the author’s cat hasn’t even read it. And The Eyeless is a Doctor Who novel and part of an existing range, when all’s said and done.

So … how do I picture my audience? This is the first time I’ve written this down, so don’t get the idea that I’ve been drawing up Venn diagrams or anything.

I think readers of The Eyeless will mostly fall into one of three categories: the old school fanboys who’ve been Doctor Who fans for years and who may well have a book by me already; more casual adult readers who like the TV show and end up giving the book a try; younger readers.

The first thing to point out is that while it’s tempting to imagine that these groups will place competing demands on the book, they want mostly the same thing: a good Doctor Who story. They want a novel which is at least competently written, with interesting characters and ideas, a story that hooks them, some stuff that scares them, makes them laugh and makes them think.

What’s quite interesting is that all three groups there tend to prefer ‘a solid story’ over more literary qualities. I’m a writer, I’ve got a Masters degree in English Literature, I tend to get a bit poncey about imagery and turns of phrases when I read (and when I write, of course). I find it very difficult to read books with just ‘functional’ prose. A lot of people who read tie-in stuff seem to want more meat-and-potatoes writing, almost as if it’s a straightforward account of what happened to their favourite characters. They want a story with a beginning, middle and end (in that order), and they don’t want an author getting in the way of it with poetry and metafiction.

I’m generalising wildly. Just because you read tie-in novels doesn’t mean you only read tie-in novels. It doesn’t mean you approach every single book wanting exactly the same thing. As noted, I read a lot of books. When I read, say, William Shatner’s Collision Course, I did not read it looking for exactly the same thing as I did when I read, say, Nicholas Christopher’s Bestiary.

I enjoyed both books, I’m a big fan of both authors and have the secret desire to be both of them when I grow up. I recommend both books. They’re very different. My point is that I didn’t go into Collision Course expecting literary fiction. As Jonathan Ross said, if you play money to see Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes movie, you shouldn’t complain when it's got a load of apes in it all being very Tim Burtony.

Of the three audience groups, it’s that last one, ‘younger readers’, which is the tricky one for me. It’s also the one that scares fanboys most. The thing that scares fanboys is the thought that if you’re doing something ‘for kids’, it means you have to compromise and tone down and rule out and bowlderise. The thing that scares me is that … well, writing for kids is way harder than writing for fanboys.

Fanboys see it as a censorship issue or a ‘ratings’ one. As it happens, the NSAs are meant to be ‘suitable for twelve year olds’. Or, in movie terms, PG13. They can be as dark and violent as Dark Knight or Casino Royale … both of which, I’d say, are at the upper end of how dark Doctor Who should get. We can’t use swearwords … again, I don’t really see how that would ever really cripple a Doctor Who story. You can’t use swearwords on primetime TV, either. As for sex … well, again, it’s not traditionally what Doctor Who does. In the olden days, Doctor Who was ridiculously asexual – pace slashers and ficcers and shippers. I think I’m right that the first romantic kiss in the show’s history is in season 25 and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (my ignorance will be exposed in the Comments section below). Even nowadays, it’s ‘saucy’ rather than explicit – the show now acknowledges that sex exists, and not just between a married man and his lady wife. This ‘sauce’ is filthy at times. Jackie Tyler’s ‘you could always splash out on a taxi or … whatever’ being a great example.

And the thing is … all these restrictions were in place before, with the EDAs. Doctor Who books shouldn’t really be the place to look for sexy stuff. If you’re reading this, you’re on the internet. If you’re on the internet, a hint: you don’t need to buy a Doctor Who book if you’re looking for filth.

I’ve ‘got away’ with stuff in The Eyeless that, in all honesty, I wasn’t sure I would do. You’ll see what when you read it. Nothing, at all, got cut for ‘ratings’ reasons (unlike Father Time and The Gallifrey Chronicles, as it happens). The only thing that changed ‘for the kids’ was that I sped up the opening a little, got to the action a little faster than I did in my first draft. That was on the advice of Justin Richards, my editor … although to be fair, two or three of the people that read the draft suggested the same thing. In practical terms, there are about two pages of description of the cityscape ‘missing’.

So … ‘kids’. I imagine my youngest reader as being about ten or eleven, but those would be really smart, bright ten year olds, ones who were big fans of Doctor Who. I think the ‘typical’ younger reader of the NSAs is about thirteen. And I wouldn’t know how to aim a book at ‘thirteen year olds’ – I’m thinking specifically about a thirteen year old reader. Someone who reads a lot, probably, who loves reading. So this is someone inquisitive, who likes learning things, solving puzzles, thinking things through.

In all honesty, smart thirteen year olds are going to be smarter and more literate than a dumb adult. They will know bigger words and more science and history.

The difference isn’t in the word choice, it’s in the world they live in. Doctor Who is, basically, about a man who fights what scares us. What scares me? Well, it’s not insects or reptiles or any of the phobic stuff Doctor Who monsters usually represent. It’s the idea that I won’t be able to pay the mortgage, for one. Interest rates. I was going to say that’s not exactly the topic for SF action-adventure, but then I remembered that the running story in Captain America at the moment is an elaborate supervillain plot to … undermine the credit market, thus destabilise the US economy to lever in a third party Presidential candidate.

I have a different perspective on the world and people than I did when I was thirteen. There would be something deeply wrong with me if I didn’t.

For The Eyeless, what I’ve tried to do is take a cue from Philip Pullman – who, in turn, took his cue from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. A child and adult can look at the same event and see two completely different things. Neither is right or wrong, particularly, but adults are often better at seeing the hidden agendas and reading into situations – of looking out for what’s not being said. There’s plenty left unsaid in The Eyeless that the younger readers won’t spot, but which the adult readers can’t miss.

The net effect of all this … I’ve written a Doctor Who book in the exact style and manner I’ve written Doctor Who books in the past. The idea that a lot of my readers are younger or more casual than back in the day has actually kept me honest – I can’t throw in an injoke or rely on the goodwill of people who know Doctor Who (or Lance Parkin) … I’ve had to make sure those characters work, that the story makes sense and so on. I think, to put it another way, having a more mainstream audience has only made the book stronger – for all my readers.